If a report by Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine is accurate, the New York Times is about to sign a historic deal with Facebook that would allow Times news stories to be hosted directly on Facebook's website. The deal — and similar deals with other websites — could benefit users by sharply reducing the time it takes to load news stories. A lot of pundits see this as a danger to the independence of news organizations.
Felix Salmon, for example, has warned that hosting content on Facebook could dilute the brands — and ultimately undermine the journalistic standards — of prestigious media organizations like the New York Times.
"If Facebook continues to grow as a trusted news source in its own right," Salmon argues, "then the result could be an existential crisis for news organizations with old-fashioned things like editors and fact-checkers and clear ethical guidelines."
But this misunderstands something important about the media business. News organizations have always done two things: decide what content people should read, and produce the content itself. We're not used to thinking about these as separate functions because in traditional news organizations — especially newspapers and magazines — they were always packaged together.
But the internet is pulling them apart. And once you start to think about these as distinct functions, the apparent dangers of Facebook-hosted content no longer seem so threatening.
News organizations have already lost control of their readers
We can think of the New York Times website as really being two products. The homepage is a news aggregator that performs the same function as sites like Digg, Reddit, and Facebook: it suggests articles people might want to read.
Then there's the New York Times's core business: producing news articles. The success of these articles doesn't depend much on how users find them. A click from Facebook is worth about as much as a click from Twitter, Reddit, or the New York Times homepage.
Media organizations tend to overrate the importance of that first part of their businesses. This is especially true of newspaper editors, who have always viewed deciding what goes on A1 as a core part of their job. But the reality is that news organization homepages have been getting less and less important. Today users mostly find news with the help of news aggregators or social media sites, not by bookmarking a news organization's homepage.
So the trend Salmon is worried about — in which news organizations lose control over how readers find and consume their stories — has been underway for years. News organizations, even really big ones like the New York Times, already depend on third-party platforms for most of their traffic.
Indeed, I suspect most users will barely notice the shift from reading NYT-hosted content via Facebook links to reading NYT content hosted by Facebook. Users don't care which company owns the server that provided a particular bit of content or which ad network provided the ad that appears next to it. The only change most Facebook users are likely to notice is that New York Times articles load faster than they used to.
News brands will still matter
Of course, it's important for the terms of an agreement like this to be right. News organizations need to have final control over the content of articles, and they need to get enough revenue for the shift to Facebook to make financial sense. But given the significant consumer benefits of faster and more streamlined browsing, it should be possible to come up with terms that are good for Facebook, news organizations, and the reading public.
Salmon worries that as news organizations lose control over how their content is consumed, their brands will be devalued in the process. But recent experience points in the opposite direction: the strength of the Times brand means people are more likely to read, share, and link to Times articles over articles published by other news organizations.
And letting Facebook host news articles won't make Facebook a "trusted news source in its own right" any more than journalists tweeting makes Twitter a trusted news source. Users understand the difference between technology platforms (like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit) and news organizations (like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN).
This is more obvious in broadcast media than in print. People can get CNN content lots of different ways — cable networks, satellite TV services, or CNN's own website. But partnerships with cable and satellite companies aren't harming CNN's brand, because everyone understands that a cable channel is a different thing from a video distribution system. By the same token, the fact that people can get New York Times articles on Facebook's website isn't going to fool anyone into thinking Facebook has become a news organization.
Disclosure: Vox Media, the parent company of Vox.com, is involved in a collaboration with Facebook to develop video content.